Monday, February 22, 2010

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

There’s an interesting story behind this one. Couple of months ago I was attending a professional education meeting and heard a talk by an engineer and neuroscientist who now helps professionals use the latest discoveries of brain science to develop practical strategies for making better decisions, leading organizations, and managing change.

After her talk I went up to introduce myself and ask her a question. It was a question I knew I couldn’t ask of just anybody, but about which I thought she might have an informed opinion.

“Where do you come down on the question of dualism?”

Her eyes went wide when she realized she had found a fellow brain geek.

Dualism, in case you’re not aware, is the concept that our brain has a non-material, spiritual dimension that includes consciousness and possibly an eternal attribute. Some folks call this dimension “the mind” to distinguish it from “the brain”, which dualists view as purely physical. The religious-minded are almost all dualists, and think of this dimension as “the soul.”

I was curious where an actual neuroscientist—the first one I had ever met in person, as far as I knew—would come down on this question. Steven Novella, the neurologist and host of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, has often said that he is not a dualist—that for him, “the mind is simply what the brain does.”

The speaker at my conference admitted it was a difficult and complicated question. Her own assessment was, ultimately, the brain was something larger than all of its parts, that there really was something transcendent going on. When I told her I leaned more in the other direction, but also admitted to being no more than an enthusiastic amateur, she recommended that I read Doidge’s book.

Well, now I have—and it was an interesting read. It central theses is that the brain exhibits something called “plasticity”—that it can be rewired and retrained throughout life, a notion that runs contrary to a hundred years of brain theory, but which is gaining more and more acceptance. Each chapter in Doidge’s book presents a case study of someone who consciously or unconsciously used the plasticity of their brain to change fundamental behaviors or regain functionality medical science predicted was impossible.

My own reaction is that this is fascinating stuff—but so what? Doidge makes a compelling argument that the brain is not as we once believed it to be. But is there a “mind” that does all this rewiring? Or is plasticity an inherent property of brains the way wetness is an inherent property of water? As I read chapter after chapter, I became convinced the latter was more likely true.

In one chapter Doidge compares the brain to a muscle. He knows the brain is not a muscle, but plasticity means that, like a muscle, the more it is used the stronger it gets. Fine. The body is replete with these kinds of examples. Yet none of us talk about the “mind” that exists within the muscle, the “mind” that causes it to reshape itself. If we’re going to use the muscle analogy for the brain, why equivocate on this point? Muscle builds up when it is used through a natural, biochemical process. It does not require a “mind.” Why do we think the brain is any different?

But Doidge keeps trying to steer us towards dualism. His text is littered with references to the “mind” and the “brain,” as if he understands them to be two different things, although he never goes so far as to provide definitions. The closest he gets is when he describes the views of French philosopher Rene Descartes, who argued…

…that mind and brain are made of different substances and are governed by different laws. The brain, he claimed, was a physical, material thing, existing in space and obeying the laws of physics. The mind (or the soul, as Descartes called it) was immaterial, a thinking thing that did not take up space or obey physical laws. Thoughts, he argued, were governed by the rules of reasoning, judgment, and desires, not by the physical laws of cause and effect. Human beings consisted of this duality, this marriage of immaterial mind and material brain.

Doidge goes on to admit that although Descartes’ view of the mind/brain division dominated science for four hundred years, he could never credibly explain how the immaterial mind could influence the material brain. My reaction—of course he couldn’t. Stating that the mind is something that does not obey physical laws is, by definition, admitting that it does not, in fact, exist. Or at least it is something whose existence cannot be demonstrated. But Doidge doesn’t want to go that far. Despite all the evidence in his own book that “we” are simply a manifestation of physical events going on in our brains, the farthest he will go is to say that “the firm line that Descartes drew between mind and brain is increasingly a dotted line.”

Dotted? All of his case studies demonstrate that no such line exists at all. Take, for example, the case of Bob Flanagan, a masochist who turned his fixation on pain into performance art. His backstory is intriguing, and clearly shows how easily disparate brain circuits can be wired together based on external stimuli.

Bob was born in 1952 with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder of the lungs and pancreas in which the body produces and excessive amount of abnormally thick mucus that clogs the air passages, making it impossible to breathe normally, and leads to chromic digestive problems. He had to fight for every breath and often turned blue from lack of oxygen. Most patients born with this disease die as children or in their early twenties.

Bob’s parents noticed he was in pain from the moment he came home from the hospital. When he was eighteen months old, doctors discovered pus between his lungs and began treating him by inserting needles deep into his chest. He began to dread the procedures and screamed desperately. Throughout childhood he was hospitalized regularly and confined nearly naked inside a bubblelike tent so doctors could monitor his sweat—one of the ways cystic fibrosis is diagnosed—while he felt mortified that his body was visible to strangers. To help him breathe and fight infections, doctors inserted all sorts of tubes into him. He was also aware of the severity of his problem: two of his younger sisters had also had cystic fibrosis; one died at six months, the other at twenty-one years.

Despite the fact that he had become a poster boy for the Orange County Cystic Fibrosis Society, he began to live a secret life. As a young child, when his stomach hurt relentlessly, he would stimulate his penis to distract himself. By the time he was in high school, he would lie naked at night and secretly cover himself with thick glue, for he knew not what reason. He hung himself from a door with belts in painful positions. Then he began to insert needles into the belt to pierce his flesh.

It gets worse. But the essential point is that in Bob’s brain the pathways associated with pain and the pathways associated with pleasure got linked from all those childhood experiences.

Metal in flesh now feels good, gives him erections, and makes him have orgasms. Some people under great physical stress release endorphins, the opiumlike analgesics that our bodies make to dull our pain and that can make us feel euphoric. But Flanagan explains he is not dulled to pain—he is drawn to it. The more he hurts himself, the more sensitized to pain he becomes, and the more pain he feels. Because his pain and pleasure systems are connected, Flanagan feels pain, intense pain, and it feels good.

Children are born helpless and will, in the critical period of sexual plasticity, do anything to avoid abandonment and to stay attached to adults, even if they must learn to love the pain and trauma that adults inflict.

How can anyone read Bob Flanagan’s story and not think that the mind is just what the brain does? It seems straight out of Brave New World or A Clockwork Orange. We are programmable. And some of those programs call into question the very concept of “we.”

And how else do you explain obsessive-compulsive behaviors?

The UCLA psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz describes a man who feared being contaminated by the battery acid spilled in car accidents. Each night he lay in bed listening for sirens that would signal an accident nearby. When he heard them, he would get up, no matter what the hour, put on special running shows, and drive until he found the site. After the police left, he would scrub the asphalt with a brush for hours, then skulk home and throw out the shoes he had worn.

I don’t want to do these things, doctor. But I can’t stop myself. It’s like someone is in control of my very thoughts and actions. What about the “me” in these situations? Am “I” not in control of my actions? Evidently not…

The causes of severe OCD brain lock vary. In many cases it runs in families and may be genetic, but it can also be caused by infections that swell the caudate.

Wait a minute. Behavior can be caused by an infection? It sure can.

Each time he turns on the magnetic field, the fourth finger on my right hand moves because he is stimulating an area of about 0.5 cubic centimeter in my brain, consisting of millions of cells—the brain map for that finger.

Wait a minute again. Behavior can be caused by a magnetic field? Again, it sure can. In fact, one group of researchers used the same technique—TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation—to remove knowledge and behaviors from their subjects.

…when the team applied blocking TMS to the visual cortex of Braille readers to create a virtual lesion, the subjects could not read Braille or feel with the Braille-reading finger.

That is some really scary stuff. With technology like that, people could have their ability to do almost anything removed from them. Even, perhaps, the knowledge of who they are? Or what their body is?

After all, what expose on the brain would be complete without an appearance by V. S. Ramachandran and his work with amputees who still feel and feel pain in their amputated limbs? Ramachandran has come to understand that our sense of our own bodies is a phantom, something our brains have constructed purely for convenience. To demonstrate this to Doidge, he used a simple technique.

Taking out the type of fake rubber hand sold in novelty shops, he sat me at a table and placed the fake hand on it, its fingers parallel to the table edge in front of me, about an inch from the edge. He told me to put my hand on the table, parallel to the fake hand, but about eight inches from the table’s edge. My hand and the fake were perfectly aligned, pointing in the same direction. Then he put a cardboard screen between the fake hand and my own, so I could see only the fake.

Then with his hand he stroked the fake hand, as I watched. With his other hand he simultaneously stroked my hand, hidden behind the screen. When he stroked the fake’s thumb, he stroked my thumb. When he tapped the fake pinkie three times, he tapped my pinkie three times, in the same rhythm. When he stroked the fake middle finger, he stroked my middle finger.

Within moments my feeling that my own hand was being stroked disappeared, and I began to experience the feeling I was being stroked as if coming from the fake hand. The dummy hand had become part of my body image! This illusion works by the same principle that fools us into thinking that ventriloquist’s dummies, or cartoons, or movie actors in films are actually talking because the lips move in sync with the sound.

Later, Ramachandran did the same trick with Doidge, only this time without the fake hand, instead getting Doidge to feel the tapping on the tabletop itself as if it was part of his body.

After all these examples, Doidge actually poses the following question.

...if the brain is so easily altered, how are we protected from endless change? Indeed, if the brain is like Play-Doh, how is it that we remain ourselves?

My answer is not the same as Doidge’s. I say we don’t remain ourselves, because fundamentally, there is no "we." Moment to moment there is the appearance of consistency, but over the span of years there is wholesale change, so much so that the person at twenty is not the same person at forty.

Doidge himself quotes the studies on memory, the ones that show…

Memories are constantly remodeled, “analogous in every way to the process by which a nation constructs legends about its early history.”

What we remember, in other words, is not actually what happened, nor even what we remembered the last time we thought about it. They are constantly being reshaped and recoded in our brain cells, each time we think about them.

And he goes on to cite a case where one of his patients breaks into hysterics during a session…

…experiencing all the emotional pain that his defenses had pushed away, reliving thoughts and feelings he had had as a child—he was regressing and unmasking older memory networks, even ways of talking.

Who is “he” at this point? The adult? The child? Neither? Both? When sixty-year-old memories we’re not even conscious of can be brought to the surface and cause us to act like the infants we used to be, what exactly is the meaning of “we?”

The people in Doidge’s book prove that physical changes in the brain change who we are—not just what we are like, but who we are. Some of them wrap all the pathos of a ruined life into a single paragraph.

His own life is an impressive story of transformation. When Jordan was in elementary school, his father had a devastating stroke that cause a type of brain damage, then poorly understood by physicians, that changed his personality. He had emotional outbursts and what is called, euphemistically, in neurology “social disinhibition”—meaning the release of the aggressive and sexual instincts normally repressed or inhibited. Nor could he seem to grasp the main point of what people were saying. Jordan did not understand what was causing his father’s behavior. Jordan’s mother divorced her husband, who lived the rest of his life in a transient hotel in Chicago, where he dies of a second stroke alone in a back alley.

But Doidge never makes the final conclusion. After railing against old ways of thinking about the brain for 300 pages, he ultimately can’t break away from the oldest of old ways to think about it. After all, even the title of his book implies dualism. “The Brain That Changes Itself.” Doesn’t “itself” imply that there is a ghost in the machine somewhere? Itself? What itself? For all the information it reveals about how the brain works, the book could more appropriately be called “The Brain That Operates in Accordance with Natural Laws We’re Just Beginning to Understand.” I bet that wouldn’t sell as many copies, though.

Monday, February 15, 2010


“In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Monday, February 8, 2010

Roots by Alex Haley

It’s been more than two months since I blogged about a book I’ve read. I guess there’s two reasons for that. One is that I chose the 729-page Roots as my next book. The second is that I joined a novel critique group and have been spending a certain percentage of my free time reading other people’s unpublished novels.

It’s been a good experience for me. I had to read and critique two other novels before the group would read and critique mine. And so far I’ve read and critiqued one more after I got the group’s feedback on mine. Perhaps I should mention that it was Columbia: Reflections in Broken Glass that I asked them to review—just the odd chapters that comprise the main story line, because the full manuscript was too long for the group’s guidelines. Evidently, they think a 267,000-word novel by an unpublished author has little chance of getting published. They’re probably right.

But let me get to Roots. I but dimly remember the sensation the TV miniseries caused back in 1977, and now that I’ve read the story that inspired it, I can more clearly understand what the fuss was all about. Even in 2010, Roots reads very much like a ground-breaking novel. It’s almost shocking to speculate on how it must have affected people when it was published in 1976.

It’s also a novel that suffers some from its own fame. The first 164 pages, as a prime example, which document Kunta’s life in Africa from birth to teenager, are an interesting and all-enveloping look at life within Kunta’s culture—replete with its strict class structure, Muslim faith, and rites of passage. I may have appreciated these pages more had I not known what was going to happen—i.e., that at some painful moment Kunta was going to be captured by slave traders and shipped across to ocean to the British colonies in America. That tragedy hangs heavily over this entire first section of the novel, and when it finally comes on page 165, it is at once surprising and expected.

He was bending over a likely prospect when he heard the sharp crack of a twig, followed quickly by the squawk of a parrot overhead. It was probably the dog returning, he thought in the back of his mind. But no grown dog ever cracked a twig, he flashed, whirling in the same instant. In a blur, rushing at him, he saw a white face, a club upraised; heard heavy footfalls behind him.

What follows is 50 or so pages of one of the most harrowing stories ever told—Kunta’s ordeal on the slave ship. Near the very end of the novel, when Haley himself is traveling the globe to track down the activities of his ancestors, the author says this about the imperative he felt to write this section as accurately as possible:

When we put to sea, I explained what I hoped to do that might help me write of my ancestor’s crossing. After each late evening’s dinner, I climbed down successive metal ladders into her deep, dark, cold cargo hold. Stripping to my underwear, I lay on my back on a wide rough bare dunnage plank and forced myself to stay there through all ten nights of the crossing, trying to imagine what did he see, hear, feel, smell, taste—and above all, in knowing Kunta, what things did he think? My crossing of course was ludicrously luxurious by any comparison to the ghastly ordeal endured by Kunta Kinte, his companions, and all those other millions who lay chained and shackled in terror and their own filth for an average of eighty to ninety days, at the end of which awaited new physical and psychic horrors. But anyway, finally I wrote of the ocean crossing—from the perspective of the human cargo.

Indeed he does, and it isn’t something I will soon forget. Kunta and his companions are kept chained and lying naked on rough wooden planks, packed and stacked into the ship’s hold like so much cargo, without room to even sit up or roll over. They all become sick at one point or another, and the waste of their bodies—the vomit, the diarrhea, the urine—is allowed to collect around them for days at a time, until the hold is periodically opened and the ship keepers come down with tubs of vinegar water to fight the stench and trowels to scrape away all the filth. About as frequently the captives are brought up on deck and scrubbed with sea water and stiff-bristled brushes, the sores on their shoulders and joints from laying on their wooden bunks opened up nearly to the bone.

Kunta survives it all—most miraculously with his Muslim faith intact.

He lay there in the darkness hearing the voice of his father sternly warning him and Lamin never to wander off anywhere alone; Kunta desperately wished that he had heeded his father’s warnings. His heart sank with the thought that he would never again be able to listen to his father, that for the rest of whatever was going to be his life, he was going to have to think for himself.

“All things are the will of Allah!” That statement—which had begun with the alcala—went from mouth to ear, and when it came to Kunta from the man lying on his left side, he turned his head to whisper the words to his Wolof shacklemate. After a moment, Kunta realized that the Wolof hadn’t whispered the words on to the next man, and after wondering for a while why not, he thought that perhaps he hadn’t said them clearly, so he started to whisper the message once again. But abruptly the Wolof spat out loudly enough to be heard across the entire hold, “If your Allah wills this, give me the devil!” From elsewhere in the darkness came several loud exclamations of agreement with the Wolof, and arguments broke out here and there.

Kunta was deeply shaken. The shocked realization that he lay with a pagan burned into his brain, faith in Allah being as precious to him as life itself. Until now he had respected the friendship and the wise opinions of his older shacklemate. But now Kunta knew that there could never be any more companionship between them.

There are times when he wrestles with his faith—questioning how Allah, of whom it was said that He was in all places at all times, could possibly be there with them—but they are largely fleeting. And his view of the “pagans” in the hold with him never truly wavers. Even as Muslim and pagan begin to die all around him, he can never quite bring himself to see the suffering of the non-believers as something that presents a true moral challenge to his faith.

When he arrives in America and is bought by a plantation owner, Kunta continues to do the best he can to adhere to the restrictions of his Muslim faith—refusing to eat pork regardless of his hunger—and he looks upon the slaves he meets that were born in North America as something less than human.

It was after sundown when the horn sounded once again—this time in the distance. As Kunta watched the other blacks hurrying into a line, he wished he could stop thinking of them as belonging to the tribes they resembled, for they were but unworthy pagans not fit to mingle with those who had come with him on the big canoe.

It’s a bit surprising to me—all this intolerance—but it’s likely an accurate testament to the intractability of humans and their various dogmas, regardless of the color of their skin.

From a narrative perspective, Kunta’s rigid thinking about Muslims and pagans sets up one of the few flaws in the novel—the issue of Kunta’s eventual acclimatization to the new society he finds himself in. When Kunta first arrives in America, it’s as if he is a spirit that can never be tamed. He runs at the first opportunity, gets caught, and runs again. This continues for several cycles until they decide to cut off half of one of his feet to keep him from running. That it does, but it doesn’t seem to quench the fire that still burns within him.

But despite this, on page 287, we read:

Nearly everyone was gone for the next few days—so many that few would have been there to notice if Kunta had tried to run away again—but he knew that even though he had learned to get around all right and make himself fairly useful, he would never be able to get very far before some slave catcher caught up with him again. Though it shamed him to admit it, he had begun to prefer life as he was allowed to live it here on this plantation to the certainty of being captured and probably killed if he tried to escape again. Deep in his heart, he knew he would never see his home again, and he could feel something precious and irretrievable dying inside of him forever. But hope remained alive; though he might never see his family again, perhaps someday he might be able to have one of his own.

What’s strange is that the scene that I so vividly remember from the miniseries – Vic Morrow whipping LeVar Burton, telling him again and again that his name is Toby, and all the while LeVar whimpering and mumbling that his name is Kunta, Kunta Kinte—doesn’t happen in the book. But it could very well have. That’s how defiant Kunta is in his early years in America, and when Haley makes him succumb it seems a bit out of character. The Kunta who survived his manhood training in Juffure, I think, would have kept running—half a foot be damned—until they killed him.

But Kunta succumbs and Kunta survives, as Kunta must because if Kunta is killed there would be no more story and no Alex Haley to be writing it. Kunta marries and has a daughter he names Kizzy, and it is in his relationship with his daughter that the true extent of Kunta’s tragedy is made manifest. This scene from when Kizzy is seven and full of the natural curiosity of youth is especially poignant.

“Do I got a gran’ma?” asked Kizzy

“You got two—my mammy and yo’ mammy’s mammy.”

“How come dey ain’t wid us?”

“Dey don’ know where we is,” said Kunta. “Does you know where we is?” he asked her a moment later.

“We’s in de buggy,” Kizzy said.

“I means where does we live.”

“At Massa Waller’s.”

“An’ where dat is?”

“Dat way,” she said, pointing down the road. Disinterested in their subject, she said, “Tell me some more ‘bout dem bugs an’ things where you come from.”

“Well, dey’s big red ants knows how to cross rivers on leafs, dat fights wars an’ marches like an army, an’ builds hills dey lives in dat’s taller dan a man.”

“Dey soun’ scary. You step on ‘em?”

“Not less’n you has to. Every critter got a right to be here same as you. Even de grass is live an’ got a soul jes’ like people does.”

“Won’t walk on de grass no mo’, den. I stay in de buggy.”

Kunta smiled. “Wasn’t no buggies where I come from. Walked wherever we was goin’. One time I walked four days wid my pappy all de way from Juffure to my uncles’ village.”

“What Joo-fah-ray?”

“Done tol’ you don’ know how many times, dat where I come from.”

“I thought you was from Africa. Dat Gambia you talks about in Africa?”

“Gambia a country in Africa. Juffure a village in Gambia.”

“Well, where dey at, Pappy?”

“’Crost de big water.”

“How big dat water?”

“So big it takes near ‘bout four moons to get ‘crost it.”

“Four what?”

“Moons. Like you say ‘months.’”

“How come you don’t say months?”

“’Cause moons my word for it.”

“What you call a ‘year’?”

“A rain.”

Kizzy mused briefly.

“How you get ‘crost dat big water?”

“In a big boat.”

“Bigger dan dat rowboat we seen dem fo’ mens fishin’ in?”

“Big enough to hol’ a hunnud mens.”

“How come it don’ sink?”

“I use to wish it would of.”

“How come?”

“’Cause we all so sick seem like we gon’ die anyhow.”

“How you get sick?”

“Got sick from layin’ in our own mess prac’ly on top each other.”

“Whyn’t you go de toilet?”

“De toubob had us chained up.”

“Who ‘toubob’?”

“White folks.”

“How come you chained up? You don sump’n wrong?”

“Was jes’ out in de woods near where I live—Juffure—lookin’ fer a piece o’ wood to make a drum wid, an’ dey grab me an’ take me off.”

“How ol’ you was?”


“Dey ask yo’ mammy an’ pappy if’n you could go?”

Kunta looked incredulously at her. “Woulda took dem too if’n dey could. To dis day my fam’ly don’ know where I is.”

“You got brothers an’ sisters?”

“Had three brothers. Maybe mo’ by now. Anyways, dey’s all growed up, prob’ly got chilluns like you.”

“We go see dem someday?”

“We cain’t go nowhere.”

“We’s gon’ somewhere now.”

“Jes’ Massa John’s. We don’t show up, dey have de dogs out at us by sundown.”

“’Cause dey worried ‘bout us?”

“’Cause we b’longs to dem, jes’ like dese hosses pullin’ us.”

“Like I b’longs to you an’ mammy?”

“You’se our young’un. Dat Different.”

“Missy Anne say she want me fo’ her own.”

“You ain’t no doll fo’ her to play wid.”

“I plays wid her, too. She done tole me she my bes’ frien’.”

“You can’t be nobody’s frien’ an’ slave both.”

“How come, Pappy?”

“’Cause frien’s don’t own one ‘nother.”

“Don’t mammy an’ you b’long to one ‘nother? Ain’t y’all frien’s?”

“Ain’t de same. We b’longs to each other ‘cause we wants to, ‘cause we loves each other.”

“Well, I loves Missy Anne, so I wants to b’long to her.”

“Couldn’t never work out.”

“What you mean?”

“You couldn’t be happy when y’all grow up.”

“Would too. I bet you wouldn’t be happy.”

“Yo sho’ right ‘bout dat!”

“Aw, Pappy, I couldn’t never leave you an’ Mammy.”

“An’ chile, speck we couldn’t never let you go, neither!”

So much of the sadness of this book is wrapped up in this one section of dialogue—as well as so many of its core themes. Kunta comes to accept the facts of his life in America, but he pledges to himself that he will raise his daughter in a way that she is not ignorant of her African heritage and what it means to him. But as this section shows, it is a world she cannot conceive, much less understand—her and all her progeny. Kunta’s tale is one they hand down from generation to generation, carrying it like a talisman whose secret they can’t unlock. By the time Kizzy’s son Chicken George passes it on to his son Virgil, it has become little more than a stale recitation of facts, absent any of the richness of Kunta’s actual experiences.

“Listen here, boy! Gwine tell you ‘bout yo’ great-gran’daddy. He were a African dat say he name ‘Kunta Kinte.’ He call a guitar a ko, an’ a river ‘Kamby Bolongo,’ an’ lot mo’ things wid African names. He say he was choppin’ a tree to make his l’il brother a drum when it was fo’ mens come up an’ grabbed ‘im from behin’. Den a big ship brung ‘im ‘crost de big water to a place call ‘Naplis. An’ he had runned off fo’ times when he try to kill dem dat cotched ‘im an’ dey cut half his foot off!”

Yet it is these facts that eventually allow Haley to connect all the broken pieces of the chain that exists from Kunta to himself and which are what make Roots possible. For this reason, the words have magic, even if the people in the book don’t always know what that magic is.

One other thing about that section of dialogue between Kunta and Kizzy. It foreshadows the ultimate tragedy of Kunta’s life, when Kizzy is sold away from him and the plantation he cannot leave for forging a traveling pass so that another young slave—the boy she loves—can escape.

“O my Lawd Gawd!” Bell shrieked. “Massa, please have mercy! She ain’t meant to do it! She ain’t knowed what she was doin’! Missy Anne de one teached ‘er to write!”

Massa Waller spoke glacially. “The law is the law. She’s broken my rules. She’s committed a felony. She may have aided in a murder. I’m told one of those white men may die.”

“Ain’t her cut de man, Massa! Massa, she worked for you ever since she big ‘nough to carry your slopjar! An’ I done cooked an’ waited on you han’ an’ foot over forty years, an’ he…” gesturing at Kunta, she stuttered, “he done driv you eve’ywhere you been for near ‘bout dat long. Massa, don’ all dat count for sump’n?”

Massa Waller would not look directly at her. “You were doing your jobs. She’s going to be sold—that’s all there is to it.”

“Jes’ cheap, low-class white folks splits up families!” shouted Bell. “You ain’t dat kin’!”

Angrily, Massa Waller gestured to the sheriff, who began to wrench Kizzy roughly toward the wagon.

Bell blocked their path. “Den sell me an’ ‘er pappy wid ‘er! Don’ split us up!”

“Get out of the way!” barked the sheriff, roughly shoving her aside.

Bellowing, Kunta sprang forward like a leopard, pummeling the sheriff to the ground with his fists.

“Save me, Fa!” Kizzy screamed. He grabbed her around the waist and began pulling frantically at her chain.

When the sheriff’s pistol butt crashed above his ear, Kunta’s head seemed to explode as he crumpled to his knees. Bell lunged toward the sheriff, but his outflung arm threw her off balance, falling heavily as he dumped Kizzy into the back of his wagon and snapped a lock on her chain. Leaping nimbly onto the seat, the sheriff lashed the horse, whose forward jerk sent the wagon lurching as Kunta clambered up. Dazed, head pounding, ignoring the pistol, he went scrambling after the wagon as it gathered speed.

“Missy Anne!...Missy Annnnnnnnnnnne!” Kizzy was screeching it at the top of her voice. “Missy Annnnnnnnne!” Again and again, the screams came; they seemed to hang in the air behind the wagon swiftly rolling toward the main road.

When Kunta began stumbling, gasping for breath, the wagon was a half mile away; when he halted, for a long time he stood looking after it until the dust had settled and the road stretched empty as far as he could see.

The massa turned and walked very quickly with his head down back into the house, past Bell huddled sobbing by the bottom step. As if Kunta were sleepwalking, he came cripping slowly back up the driveway—when an African remembrance flashed into his mind, and near the front of the house he bent down and started peering around. Determining the clearest prints that Kizzy’s bare feet had left in the dust, scooping up the double handful containing those footprints, he went rushing toward the cabin: The ancient forefathers said that precious dust kept in some safe place would insure Kizzy’s return to where she made the footprints. He burst through the cabin’s open door, his eyes sweeping the room and falling upon his gourd on a shelf containing his pebbles. Springing over there, in the instant before opening his cupped hands to drop in the dirt, suddenly he knew the truth: His Kizzy was gone; she would not return. He would never see his Kizzy again.

His face contorting, Kunta flung his dust toward the cabin’s roof. Tears bursting from his eyes, snatching his heavy gourd up high over his head, his mouth wide in a soundless scream, he hurled the gourd down with all his strength, and it shattered against the packed-earth floor, his 662 pebbles representing each month of his 55 rains flying out, ricocheting wildly in all directions.

This tragic and powerful scene—Kunta finally turning his back on the beliefs of his African past and figuratively destroying his past life by shattering the calendar gourd—is the last we will ever see of Kunta. At this point, the book begins to treat Kizzy as the main character, and then her son Chicken George, and then people of the multiple generations that follow. There are times early on when you think that perhaps Kizzy will see her father again, but as the years wear on you realize that it isn’t so, and that Kunta will remain the sad and desperate victim of his final scene for the rest of time. In keeping true to the book’s theme, it is an absolutely masterful technique.

The book is only half done at this point, but Kunta has been such a large part of the book’s attention for so long that many of the following characters seem a little like strangers in comparison. Chicken George comes closest to capturing that attention again, especially as he struggles to find acceptance in a world run by whites without alienating his black family. Several interesting themes get developed through this story line.

First is the fact that George is part white. His father is actually his own master, who forced himself on his mother Kizzy shortly after her arrival on his property. He gets the name Chicken George as a teenager when he takes on an apprenticeship under his master’s aging negro chicken trainer, and begins to excel at the assignment. Massa Lea is a cock fighter, and it is through George’s raising, training, and betting on his prize chickens that a shadowy father/son relationship begins to develop between the two of them. It gives him many privileges that are not available to his mother, his wife or his children, but at the same time it separates him from them in ways that pains him and them.

But more interesting—and maybe unintentionally—is Haley’s use of names. Kunta was born Kunta, named by his father in one of the most important ceremonies of his African village. He is given the name Toby by his American master, but never accepts and never comes to think of himself as anything other than Kunta. It’s the name his wife Bell consistently says, and the one the narrative voice uses to refer to him throughout the novel.

George is born George, also named by his father, but much more cavalierly than the pains that Kunta’s father took in choosing a name. George, too, is later given another name by his American master—Chicken George—but unlike Kunta who never truly became Toby, George becomes Chicken George—to his family, to the narrator, even to himself. Once the name is applied, it is used throughout the rest of the novel as the universal way to refer to him.

I think that says a lot about the world these people lived in. Wikipedia says there is some doubt over whether or not Haley plagiarized some of the content of his book—but even if he did, there are subtle elements like that throughout which add a lot of depth and meaning to the reading experience. There’s also some not-so-subtle descriptions that quickly and effectively orient you towards the alternate universe (to our modern sensibilities, at least) that the characters are living in. Descriptions like:

He had heard many a whispering of cooks and maids grinning and bowing as they served food containing some of their own bodily wastes. And he had been told of white folks’ meals containing bits of ground glass, or arsenic, or other poisons. He had even heard stories about white babies going into mysterious fatal comas without any trace of the darning needle that had been thrust by housemaids into their soft heads where the hair was thickest.

And like:

Kunta thought about how “high-yaller” slave girls brought high prices at the county seat slave auctions. He had seen them being sold, and he had heard many times about the purposes for which they were bought. And he thought of the many stories he had heard about “high-yaller” manchildren—about how they were likely to get mysteriously taken away as babies never to be seen again, because of the white fear that otherwise they might grow up into white-looking men and escape to where they weren’t known and mix the blackness in their blood with that of white women. Every time Kunta thought about any aspect of blood mixing, he would thank Allah that he and Bell could share the comfort of knowing that whatever otherwise might prove to be His will, their manchild was going to be black.

This is a strange land we’re visiting in Roots, but what makes the novel so powerful is the realization that this land is really not that far away. The story traces the generations down to the present day, and helps the reader see not just how far our society has come, but how painfully recently the improvements have actually been.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Power (1989)

Mainstream Fiction
2,889 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1989. All rights reserved.

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Before I start I want to say that I no longer know any of the people I’m going to talk about. They’re from a part of my life that’s forever gone and I doubt very much that I will ever learn what became of them. But that’s okay, because when I think about it, I realize that I really didn’t like these people from my past. Only one of them ever really taught me anything about how things are, and that lesson was taught so well that I neither need nor want a refresher course.

This thing happened back in 1978 when I was ten and in the fourth grade and we were still living in the suburbs. I had two good friends back then, both in the same grade with me and who both lived in my neighborhood. One was named Tony, and I think I liked him better. It’s hard to remember what it was that motivated you when you were ten years old. It’s even harder to remember what guided your emotions. Most of your memories come back to you as facts and they don’t bring with them explanations as to why they are the facts. I just know that I liked Tony much better than Shitface.

It was what my father called him. His real name was Scott. My father had gone to high school with Shitface’s father, and he said that his father was a shitface, too. When we were kids, I guess I called him Scott, but now the name just doesn’t seem to fit my memory. I can’t help but call him Shitface, too.

It was during the summer that this thing happened. It was early in the season, but my parents were already making plans for the move we would make in August. It was a wonderfully hot summer day, the kind you only have before you become a teenager. The heat was oppressive, and my friends and I were out relishing in it.

I spent the day away from home, out in the neighborhood with Tony and Shitface, like we used to do. Not really going anyplace special, just hanging around. We would get some kids that we did or didn’t know and play baseball in the side streets with a tennis ball and a softball bat, or play ball tag in someone’s backyard with a big rubber ball. It was a long day and it was getting dark when I started on my way home for dinner. Tony and Shitface had to walk with me for a while to get to their homes, and as a group we passed the house were Cissa lived.

Cissa was an older boy, about sixteen or seventeen, who lived with his father in a run-down house on the corner of 106th Street and Lawn Avenue. Cissa was his last name and that was what everybody called him. I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure never knew what his first name was.

Cissa’s yard was traditionally a cut-through yard. I don’t know what it is about little kids that keeps them from using the sidewalks. It certainly wasn’t to save any effort, because often climbing fences and running from dogs wore you out more than walking down the corner would. I can only say that there is something clandestine about it that kids love. There is something secret agent-ish about sneaking through someone’s yard who you know doesn’t want their yard sneaked through. Kids love it and I guess kids will always do it. Who knows, thirty or forty years from now it may be me who is shaking a fist at the latest generation of 007s to march through my bean seedlings.

We were cutting through Cissa’s yard when Shitface stopped and shouted some taunts into the open windows of the house. Cissa was usually home alone at this time of day, his father worked second shift at the lumberyard. I’ve never known what happened to Cissa’s mother, whether she was dead or divorced, or whether he ever even had a legal one. It sometimes scared me to think how little I knew back then. At any rate, Shitface’s taunts were meant for Cissa, and he was the only one who could have been home.

“Hey sissy sissy Cissa!” Shitface shouted. “Sissy sissy Cissa! What a fucking sissy!”

Tony immediately joined in on the taunt and their voices sliced through the summer heat like the wings of a hornet.

“Sissy sissy Cissa! Nothing but a silly fucking sissy!”

Had I been older, or a little more independent, I would have kept right on going, cutting between the bushes and Cissa’s garage and on home to some of my mother’s good cooking. But I was young and stupid, and I guess I felt like I needed to belong, to do everything my friends did no matter how spiteful or juvenile it was. I’m not blaming Tony and Shitface for what was about to happen to me, but I think it should be said that if I had been alone, or perhaps just with Tony, I’d have been on time for dinner that night.

But I added my shrill voice to the taunt as well. It was immature and I really didn’t know why Shitface was taunting Cissa in the first place, but I taunted him all the same.

“Sissy sissy Cissa! Stupid silly fucking sissy Cissa!”

It was then that the garage door suddenly rolled up on its track and Cissa rushed out. The three of us spun and froze in surprised terror. I remember looking at Cissa dashing out of the garage and I thought that I’d never seen anyone so angry in my life, not even my father after I’d punctured a tire on his gold Pontiac with a lawn dart. Cissa’s face was all red and his hands were hooked into claws.

Tony and Shitface ran. It was like one second they were there and the next second they weren’t. My brain screamed at my legs to run, but with Cissa bearing down on me, it seemed like hours before they responded. I was running down the driveway, watching my friends pull away from me across the street, when Cissa caught me.

“Tony! Help! He’s got me! Get my dad!”

Cissa tucked me under his arm and ran to the house with me. I’d never before that moment thought about how big a person Cissa was. To a ten-year-old, any seventeen-year-old would seem big, but Cissa was massive for his age. If he’d actually gone to the high school he was supposedly enrolled in, I’m sure he would’ve made one hell of an offensive lineman.

I continued to scream and tried to squirm out of his grasp. I was usually pretty good at that. When I wrestled with my father, it would seem that I could always squirm enough to break his holds. But Cissa held me tightly. I began to get the feeling that my father had been letting me go. Cissa carried me into his house and down the steps to the basement. He threw me on a musty blue sofa that was set against the cold stone wall. I bounced off it and tried to run past him and up the stairs but he tossed me back onto the sofa. I stayed there this time. I stopped screaming. I’d long since stopped shouting words or anything coherent; I’d decayed into pure howls of panic. But I stopped doing even that because Cissa wasn’t doing anything to me. He was just standing there, glaring at me and guarding the stairs.

With the end of my cries, an uneasy silence settled down with the dust in the basement. I was still scared. Perhaps now more so than before. Cissa had me trapped down in his basement and there was no way I was getting out unless he let me out. I stood up and looked around. The furnace sat silently in one corner and a green felt pool table sat in the darkness, covered with dusty boxes, folded lawn chairs, and spattered drop clothes. The only light was the sixty watt bulb at the top of the stairs and the shadows looked like they were about to leap out of the corners and smother me. There was a chill down there, and after the heat of the afternoon sun, it made me feel faint.

Cissa took a menacing step towards me. “You name’s Kevin, ain’t it?”

I nodded my head quickly.

Cissa punched me in the face. He hit me right beside my nose, under my left eye, and I fell backward onto the sofa. I’d never really been punched in the face before that day. My father had slapped me when I’d been bad, but he’d never punched me. You see it all the time in those old western movies and it always sounds like a handclap or the crack of a whip. That may be how it sounds when you punch someone else, but when it’s you that gets punched, it doesn’t sound like that at all. It’s like how your voice sounds different to you when you hear it on a tape recorder. When you speak, you hear it through your skull as well as your ears. Your skull vibrates a little and it muffles the sound. That’s what happens when you get punched, except that it’s not just sound waves that makes your skull vibrate. The western movie handclap decays into a dull thud and you’re glad your vision goes black so you can’t see how pathetic you look.

“Well, Kevin,” Cissa said. “I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to teach you something it took me a long time to learn for myself.”

I was barely listening to him. My head was reeling and the pain was beginning to set in. I put a hand over my eyes and began to moan.

“Shut up a listen to me,” Cissa said.

I began to cry.

Cissa grabbed me by the shirtfront and hauled me off the sofa. He started to shake me and told me to shut up again. I wrenched free of his grasp and sat down, stifling my sobs.

“You are right now completely under my control,” Cissa said. “That is a fact. I have trapped you down here in my basement and I am able to do anything I want with you. There is nothing that can stop me from beating the shit out of you right now, and you know this. How does that make you feel?”

I said nothing.

“I’ll tell you how that makes you feel. You feel weak, helpless, and worst of all, controlled. And that’s what makes you mad. You’re burning up right now with your hatred of me, and only because I’ve shown you that you don’t have all the freedom you thought you had. Am I right?”

“Yes,” I said through clenched teeth.

“Good,” Cissa said. “The way you feel right now is the way I’ve felt growing up with my father. The power I have over you is the same power my father had over me. He laid down the law, and I was to follow it to the letter or he would beat the crap out of me. Anytime I did something he considered wrong, or against his wishes, or was disrespectful to him, he would beat me bloody and throw me down here in the basement for punishment. He did this until I learned what I’m about to teach you.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That you don’t fuck with people who have power over you. I used to hate my dad so much that I’d purposely do things to piss him off. Disobey him. Talk back. Things like that. I’d do these things and he’d beat me worse and worse every time. Then I decided that what I was doing was stupid. Let the old man have his way. I was sick of being kicked around. So I started doing what he told me to do. I fixed his meals. I washed his car. I cut the grass. And guess what? Things changed. Things got better. He stopped beating me, and he started to give me a little freedom.”

Cissa paused. He looked at me for a long time and the side of my face began to throb.

“Last night,” Cissa said, “my father came home after work really drunk. It isn’t something he does much, but it happens sometimes. When he does, I usually stay out of his way. He’s really irritable when he’s drunk. But last night, I was up watching cable when he came in. He started accusing me of taking his car for joyrides or some shit like that, I couldn’t really understand him. I was trying to calm him down and tell him I didn’t know what he was talking about when he hit me. He took me completely by surprise with that. He hadn’t hit me in over a year. He hit me with a good rap to the side of the head.

“Kevin, I looked inside myself last night and I saw someone who had done a lot of growing in the past year. I saw someone who wasn’t bucking the system. Someone who was doing his best to get along without being abused or hurt. Someone who was being hit not because he deserved it, but because his father had gotten drunk and was pissed off about something his kid hadn’t done. I also saw someone who had a little power of his own.

“I punched my father in the teeth last night and he fell on his ass just like you did. He sat on the kitchen floor for a long time just rubbing his jaw and muttering to himself. Eventually he got up and left. I haven’t seen him since last night. He’s probably shacked up with one of his bitches, but I honestly wouldn’t care if he was lying dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Cissa drifted off into silence. He was staring at me but I don’t think he was seeing me. His eyes were a glassy blank. He suddenly shook his head and blinked a few times.

“Do you know what I’m trying to say?”

My face was pounding. “I don’t know.”

“I’m trying to say that in this world there are people who are going to control your life whether you fight back or not. If you are always rebelling against them, they are going to stifle you more and more until you are buried so deep that you will never get out. The only way to beat them is to play their game by their rules, and bide your time until you find yourself in a position to turn the tables. Then you act, and act fast.”

I was ten. I know I didn’t understand everything that Cissa was trying to tell me. But I’ve remembered his words, and now that I’ve become a man, I see that Cissa knew what he was talking about. I walk around town and I see all the protesters and the radicals out picketing and marching and shouting with the idea that they are accomplishing something. It doesn’t matter what they’re against or who they are. All they’re saying to those in power is, here we are, we’re the ones you have to watch out for, we’re the radicals. And those in power simply close their fist more tightly around that group of people, crushing the ones slippery enough to squeeze through their fingers with the heel of their other hand. But, as I said, I was ten. I just wanted to go home.

“Do you understand?” Cissa asked.

I felt the rising welt on my face. “I think so. Can I go now?”

Cissa moved away from the stairs. “All right, you can go home. Run right home and tell your dad everything I did to you down here. Or if that isn’t bad enough, make a few things up. Forget everything I said and have your dad call the cops. Maybe I’ll spend a night in the detention center, maybe I won’t. Either way, it’s not going to change what I just said.”

I looked at Cissa for a long time, trying to figure out what I should do. He had hit me, sure, but I think I realized that I had had it coming. Maybe not as much as Shitface or even Tony had it coming, but I had it coming all the same. I walked slowly to the stairs, expecting Cissa to stop me at every step. When I got to the bottom stair, I stopped.

“I’ll tell my dad I fell off Tony’s bike.”


“Why did you tell me all this?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Cissa said. “You’re not like those other two. They’re going to go through their whole lives fighting authority, and never for any better reason than because they are too fucking thickheaded to accept that the world will go on just fine without them.”

I looked at the blood that had dripped onto my shirt. “You didn’t have to hit me.”

“You’re right,” Cissa said. “But I did it anyway.”

I turned and ran up the stairs.

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